September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND
So, Ray Romano: Your sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is critically acclaimed; CBS execs have such confidence in it that they’re moving it into a key 9 p.m. Monday time period; you’re in high demand on the nightclub circuit; and you’ve got a seven-figure deal with Bantam to write a book. How do you feel?

Ooooooh, it’s kiiiilllling me!” says Romano in his trademark slow moan. ”I’ve got a September deadline for the book, and it’s only about half written. At the same time, I’m helping work on the first six scripts of the series. We’re up against Ally McBeal this season, and we didn’t get any Emmy nominations. Tell me I’m a success again so I don’t kill myself right now.”

You’re a success, Ray. While Raymond may not be a top 10 show (it ended the season at 33), it is one of the most satisfying sitcoms on television; laugh-a-minute funny yet also sharply revelatory about the toe-crunching tango of marriage. The chemistry between Romano and Patricia Heaton, who play suburban parents Ray and Debra Barone, generates some of the sharpest, truest humor on the small screen. And the show is bolstered by dual battle-axes Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle, as Ray’s pushy, hilariously annoying parents, and Brad Garrett as Ray’s morose brother, Robert.

”If the first season was about introducing the characters to you, and the second season about deepening those characters, this third season will be about expanding Ray’s and the family’s universe,” says Raymond exec producer Philip Rosenthal. To that end, Robert will move out of his parents’ house, get a bachelor pad, and start dating a lot of women. ”Ray will kind of live vicariously through Robert,” says Romano, ”which will lead to some nice friction between him and Debra.”

Heaton says that in the season opener, ”we get termites in our house and it has to be tented, so we all have to move across the street to Marie and Frank’s, and we end up being the pests who won’t leave them alone.”

In real life, Heaton is five months pregnant with her fourth child. No problem, says Romano: ”Patty was pregnant during the first season, too, and we wrote around that.” Furthermore, being in the family way appears to be part of the Raymond job description (this, despite its being a family sitcom famous for a lack of kid scenes). ”It’s a very, um, ripe set,” says Romano wryly. ”My wife and I had our fourth child during production of the series — she’s 5 months old now. And Brad Garrett’s significant other is pregnant too. Plus, the mother of the three kids on our show [Madylin, Sullivan, and Sawyer Sweeten] is also pregnant. I gotta find out what we serve at the craft-services table.”

Romano is praying his show will be as fruitful delivering viewers in its new time slot, where being a ”word-of-mouth hit,” as he describes it — ”the kind of show you might not watch until a friend tells you you should check it out, but that means people really want other people to see it” — may not be enough against ratings and demo powerhouses. Is Rosenthal as worried about being opposite ABC football and first-season phenomenon Ally McBeal? His answer is succinct: ”Very.”

”I put it this way,” says Romano. ”All the men in the viewing audience are going to be watching football, all the women are going to watch Ally. We get everyone else — elderly robots, I think, are the only ones left with Nielsen boxes.”

Raymond‘s lead-in, while promising, may not help — though Romano would be the last person to gripe. The King of Queens stars real-life pal Kevin James, a fellow stand-up comic and semi-regular on Raymond as one of Ray’s buds. Romano says he went to a Queens rehearsal recently, ”and Kevin and [Seinfeld‘s] Jerry Stiller were hysterical, ad-libbing and cracking everyone up. I said to Kevin, ‘You SOB, you got a good show goin’ here.’

”It’s great that Kevin has his own show,” adds Romano. ”I love watching him sweat out his own story conferences now, the way I’ve been doing. Suddenly he’s concerned about ratings. He calls me up and says things like ‘So, if Cosby [King of Queens‘ lead-in] does a 10.6 rating, what do I have to get to stay on the air?’ ” Romano chuckles sadistically. ”Now my friend knows what pressure is.”

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